Building a Championship Culture with University of Washington Athletic Director Jen Cohen
Jen Cohen is the Athletic Director at the University of Washington. Upon her appointment in 2016, Cohen became just the third active female AD in the Power Five conferences. In this conversation, Cohen talks about her personal journey, discusses the impact of Husky football head coach Chris Peterson, explores what it takes to build a championship culture, and shares the one piece of advice she would offer every coach.
How did you get involved in sports and what are the key aspects of your journey that led you to become the leader you are? What were the steps in your journey that led you to the University of Washington?
I fell in love with college athletics at a really young age. My family moved from San Diego to Tacoma, Washington, which was a tough move for all of us for a variety of different reasons––weather included. My father was looking for some way for us to build a connection with the community, so he bought Husky Football season tickets. It was love at first sight for me.
I fell in love with a number of things––one, how going to games built my relationships with my parents. It gave us some commonalities and connections that we could always bond over no matter what was happening in all of our lives. I fell in love with competition, what winning felt like, what losing felt like. It was intoxicating, and still is for me today. And community––I was a little girl that needed to be part of something and belong to something. It was an odd combination, but that’s what it did for me.
So over time, I decided that I was going to be a college football coach, and would replace our legendary coach Don James. I wrote him a letter in late elementary school telling him that was my plan. He kindly responded and reminded me that girls weren’t getting a lot of opportunities in coaching football, and I should think about maybe working in the business of sports and college athletics because he was seeing more women starting to get chances to do that. This was a long time ago, obviously.
And I said, ‘that’s it, that’s what I’m going to do,’ and I set my sights on this opportunity to eventually work in college athletics. My dream was to work at University of Washington and maybe someday be the Athletic Director.
So I really had a childhood dream come true, but as far as the journey goes, it was certainly not storybook. I have always been kind of an average kid, an average athlete, an average student. I didn’t even get into the UW. I experienced a lot of failures over my time, through childhood, into early adulthood––even today.
And the thing that changed my life was actually being able to work in the environment of sports because I was taught by all these other people around me how to have resilience and how to have a positive mindset, even when obstacles are thrown your way. And those were things that were not natural for me. My father was a perfectionist, and when there was failure, I always thought the world was going to fall apart.
It’s been years of being around great athletes, great coaches, talented donors, smart leaders, that has taught me how to develop those skills. Here I am, almost 40 years later, getting to lead the program I’ve loved my whole life. And yet to this day I’m still getting taught by the people I’m serving, which is pretty remarkable.
How did your experience growing up in the UW community shape your strategic vision for UW athletics?
I think that leadership needs to be authentic. Opportunities to lead should be aligned with your values, who you are at the core. They need to match with the place and the people in the organization. What’s unique about my opportunity here is that I was able to transition into this job, which is a challenging job––nothing prepares you for it until you’re doing it, and then you’re still not prepared for it. But what makes it work isn’t just the content of the work and your experience––it’s the match, it’s the fit. I feel so lucky because I grew up here, I grew up in the business here, and I knew coming into this position that culturally I was the right fit. Culturally, the environment I wanted to build would work here because it’s not just what I want, or what I envision––it’s what makes sense, it’s in the fabric of the place. You don’t just get to come into every place and just transform it unless it wants to be transformed that way. That’s a real gift I’ve been given, and I’ve been able to do it in a place for which I already had pretty good context.
Where we want to go and where we’re going is already so aligned with the city, the fan base, the institution, the mission. I know that at Washington our fans and our university culture embrace that we’re not just about sports. I know that everybody knows our work in sports, but our “why” is something totally different, that we’re really here to develop kids, and we’re here to develop leaders, and develop talented citizens, so that our students are actually going on to do something even better with their lives once they’re gone from here. And so this place actually believes that, and I know they do. Having that awareness has been inspiring and motivating for me, from pretty early on, to be able to get our staff aligned around that vision, and to get our staff committed and inspired around that vision, because I knew that we couldn’t do it alone. This vision has to be embraced by a lot of other people, and it’s been empowering, I think, for our entire department to feel like we can prioritize what’s good and right in a place, and get that kind of support.
What have you learned most about yourself as a leader since becoming Athletic Director?
I think of all the things that surprised me the most about leadership at this level is just that––leadership at this level. There have been very few things where the actual work itself has been that overwhelming, but the responsibility of actively fostering a culture all the time that’s positive, that’s moving in the right direction, has been extremely challenging. And so one of the first lessons I had is that I was a little naïve. I thought you work hard, you set a good example, you hire some good people around you, and then you’ve got an awesome culture. But that’s not what really builds culture. That’s a piece of it––leadership is essential to culture––but it’s been more learning how to simplify who we are and what we stand for, and really provide clarity that breaks through all the silos to support each team in an easy way so everyone can understand they are part of something better. And then the continuous work of reinforcing that clarity and communicating it and over communicating it, and rewarding it––that’s just been extremely hard. I’ve learned that no doubt culture is king, but culture has to be fought for every day. That should be your number one priority.
The best culture manager I’ve ever worked with in my career is Chris Peterson. We had several conversations about this when I first started, about how you simplify, and how you get the alignment, and how you reinforce it, because that’s the hardest part. He gave me this great book called The Advantage by Patrick Lencioni, which asks six simple questions about your organization: why your organization exists, how you’re going to behave, what you do, what are your strategic anchors, what’s most important for the next 6-12 months, and who on your team is going to do what. I read that book when I first got the job and I could not answer the questions. I was completely debating myself. It was a valuable moment because I realized, ‘if I can’t answer these questions, how do I expect everybody else to be on the same page?’ We can be good in all of our areas, but we’re not going to be great. So we systematically went through the process, as a leadership team, of answering those questions. It’s like a simple one-page playbook. And organically we started to live that playbook and the answers to those questions every day. Over time we started to make hiring decisions based off it, firing decisions based off it, recognition, rewards, compensation, all based around the answers to those types of questions. We are on our second year of managing culture based on this simplification and we are definitely making improvements in the reinforcement and getting buy-in across more people in the department. I’ve learned it takes tremendous time and discipline and that I can never take my eye off of this. That’s probably my number one job as the leader of this place: to be paying attention to culture at all times.
How do you build a ‘championship culture’?
The first thing is that you have to identify the values that you know foster championship culture. And those values can’t be ‘well, winning is a championship culture.’ It’s actually all about the behaviors. Behaviors have to be your primary focus in what you cultivate in everybody around you. And it starts with you. You have to actually visit those behaviors and then you need to encourage them and teach them and talk about them and look for them. So, there are three ways that we develop student-athletes. One is that we invest emotionally and financially in the holistic student athlete experience. That’s everything from academics to leadership to study abroad experience to wellness. You name it––we invest equally across the holistic student athlete experience. The second is the championship culture piece––that we want to create a culture that does produce results, and does yield winning teams, because that’s what this university is all about: excellence. The third is that we do it the right way, and we do it in a way that is by our values, that makes the university proud, and that helps build community.
1. Committed to service
2. Are humble
3. Have a growth mindset
4. Are gritty
To me, the value piece is the answer to all of this. It goes back to the four values that are already who we are and are consistent with every championship culture that we’ve ever had or will ever have. You have to be able to check the box on all four of them, and they are unique to us. One is that we are committed to service––that we are absolutely always all here at every level within this organization to work on behalf of others. The second is that we are humble––that we’re humbled by all this, so when things are good, we’re humbled by it, and when things are bad, we’re still humbled by it. We have to remember where we sit in the grand scheme of things. The third is that we have a growth mindset. This is an innovative city, this is an innovative university. We’re going to have to be creative here. We’re going to have to adjust, we’re going to have to adjust, we’re going to have to be nimble as this industry changes. We go to bed, we wake up, there’s something new. Constant improvement comes from this willingness to want to get better every day. It’s woven into that culture. The fourth is that we are gritty. This is a tough place. It’s hard to recruit here. We’re geographically in the middle of nowhere. The weather sucks sometimes. This is a chip on our shoulder. We’re going to outthink you, outwork you, and we’re going to come together more. And that’s how we’re going to beat you.
You create excellence by the behaviors, and the behaviors need to be evaluated. So when we’re evaluating coaches, we look at those four values. We have hired five new head coaches since I’ve been in this job, and that quadrant of values is the primary driver for each of those decisions. There is a lot of talent out there, a lot of good coaches, but it’s all about those values, because those values would inspire here at Washington, and that is the kind of success that produces winning teams.
If you could give one piece of advice to every youth coach, what would it be?
Remember, sports is just a vehicle. You have this incredible opportunity to transform lives, to give opportunity. At that age, kids are at a "Y" in the road. They can learn that adversity is an opportunity. They can learn that if they have the right mindset, they can overcome anything. They can learn that team is more important than talent. But they’re only going to learn that from their coaches, from the people that they look up to. Keep yourself on the path of remembering you’re there to develop kids, and change their lives. Winning will come with keeping the values and those priorities in their rightful place.